Tools of the Trade: Which BI Tool Is Best?

As consultants, we are always being asked “Which tool should I use for BI/Analytics?” For better or worse, the answer isn’t simple. It’s a bit like saying “I have to cut some wood. What saw should I use?” To answer that question, we would need to know:

  • What kind of wood are you cutting?
  • What are the dimensions?
  • What are you doing with the wood that requires it to be cut?
  • Is the wood mobile, in a fixed place, hard to reach?
  • Are you just cutting it in half or are you doing something intricate?

Once we know the answers to those questions, a woodworking expert may say “Compound Miter Saw!”

Does that mean we should throw out all other saws and forever use a Compound Miter Saw? NOPE!

And so the story goes with BI. We need to know things like:

  • What type of reports do you need to build today?
  • Do you see the need for different functionality in the future?
  • Do you need to be able to build dashboards?
  • Who will be creating reports and what is their technical background?
  • Will you be doing anything that needs to be highly formatted in PDF?
  • How will people get to the reports?
  • What tools/infrastructure do you have today?
  • Is this for analysts, IT, end users?

There are dozens of questions we may ask.

What platforms and solutions do organizations need?

In the BI space we currently see a few “core” solutions: Enterprise Reporting, Dashboards/Visualizations, Predictive/Machine Learning/AI. Every organization is different. We need to understand the current state, technologies available, difficulties with the current environment, and goals of the organization before we start throwing technology at the problem.

Where do we start?

No company can run without enterprise reporting. You need financial statements, regulatory reports, invoices, etc. and those require distribution inside and outside the organization. Every ERP, CRM, and operational system has built-in reports, but having a single place to go for cross-system reporting, custom reports, etc. is essential. This is where tools like Cognos, Business Objects, SSRS, and others like them are incredibly important.

These tools can build dashboards, scorecards, and include web service APIs, but much of the time these tools are driven by IT and require a bit of technical knowledge to utilize fully and correctly. They may not be as “agile” as your departmental users and analysts would like!

Ideally, in your enterprise reporting solution, you’ll have something that has built-in enterprise security and a reusable data model. There will be change management ensuring published items can be trusted, governed, etc. Your CFO doesn’t want anyone changing up the P&L after he or she signed off on it!

Enterprise reporting is your Compound Miter Saw. It’s required.

When do we consider something else?

Sometimes we need something more agile, something that we can grab quickly, wherever we are, and do a quick job. Maybe you’re an analyst, you don’t have a “server,” and you probably don’t know much about metadata. You just want to install something on your computer and get stuff done! Hopefully you’ve realized that while Excel can do practically ANYTHING, it’s also a very manual and cumbersome process. For that, we may turn to our friends at Tableau, PowerBI, or similar agile analytics tools.

These companies have made names for themselves by giving non-IT people tools that are more effective and efficient than Excel in many ways but don’t take a lot of effort or background knowledge to get started. You download a trial, grab some data, and you are slicing, dicing, and visualizing!

Your teams in marketing, accounting, engineering, etc. all have data and they STRUGGLE with it! Many of those organizations are dumping data from your enterprise reporting solution (that they hate) and then jamming it in Excel. They spend two days trying to cobble that data together, so they can get an answer for the sales team, controller, a client, etc. They live in Excel Hell.

When those analysts get a hold of a tool that cuts a two-day job down to a couple of hours, they rejoice! No longer do they need to download, copy-paste, VLOOKUP, SUMIF, pivot, and export to PowerPoint. They use purpose-built analyst tools to get the job done.

These analysts need something handheld that can get into tight places, cut curves, etc. They found a Jig Saw and they are thrilled with it.

Problem solved?

Everyone is happy right? Not exactly. The IT department is FREAKING OUT! “We have crazy people out in the line of business trying to chop down trees with a JIG SAW! It’s not SAFE! It’s not SECURE! STOP EVERYTHING! You are ROGUE IT and you’re putting the entire company AT RISK with your shenanigans!”

On the other hand, the new rogue IT team/analysts are having a party because they never need to speak to IT again because they can DO ANYTHING now!

This polarization is running rampant at most organizations right now. The battle between enterprise IT and rogue IT is strong and it’s unhealthy. We must stop working against each other and realize that there are times when both strategies are appropriate. I believe the olive branch needs to be extended from IT.

Why is IT the one in the driver’s seat?

Because line of business knows IT as the team of “no.” “No you can’t have access to the database. No, we can’t build what you need this month. No, you can’t store those files on our server. No, we can’t give you remote access. No, no, no.”

So, the line of business finds a way. Coming in and telling them that “No, you can’t use the solution you found since we didn’t help you” is not the answer.

The best IT organizations we work with right now are doing everything they can to enable their data-hungry departments and individuals by giving them tools they can collaborate with on. That may mean bringing in something that isn’t “on your approved enterprise application list” but it’s WAY better than the crazy things going on in Excel behind your back!

Forward thinking IT departments are challenging their business unit counterparts to push the boundaries of automation, process improvement, and data analysis. They give them tools like Alteryx, Tableau, PowerBI, that empower the departments and give them a way out of the Excel nightmare.

But what about security, enterprise standards, etc.?

We need those too. We need a framework that embraces agile tools (jig saws) when they are the best tools for the job, and also supports enterprise tools (compound miter saws) when the solution calls for it.

We have discovered another amazing thing that happens when the users use these agile tools in their departments to build solutions. They are creating REQUIREMENTS! Think about it; when have you ever been able to pin down a user to create real requirements documents with legitimate use cases and test cases? NEVER! Now they are out building a working solution that gets them the data and answers they need!

If IT looks at the solution the user created, and it is something that needs to be turned into an enterprise class solution, just port over the solution the user created. IT can then add security, auditing, change control, and any other company standards. If done well, the users should be happy to use something that is more automated, scheduled, and bullet-proof that they don’t have to worry about supporting!

There are many saws and many analytics tools out there. Rather than saying one is the best and the rest are unacceptable, let’s think a little more openly. The best tool out there is the one that actually gets used and gets the job done. A tool that sits on the shelf while people do things with hand saws/Excel is a waste of money!

Conclusion and call to action.

Your organization is here to make money, teach students, cure cancer…not to fight over tools and internal fiefdoms. Let’s work together to advance the organization and let the tools enable that mission.

Capitalize Analytics is an organization passionate about helping people use data more effectively and efficiently. We search out and destroy manual processes, data challenges, integration problems, etc. We take the time to understand the entire problem and select tools purpose-built to resolve it.

Give us a call and let’s build a collaborative enterprise and agile data analytics community at your organization!